Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Stop Shopping

An actual NYTimes headline:

Low Spending Is Taking Toll on Economy

Note where the blame is being placed? Not on price-gouging and obscene greed, not on increasing unemployment, not on the systematic destruction of the middle class, not on a global recession-cum-depression induced by war profiteers looting every nation possible.

No, it's blamed on a lack of spending.

On those pesky consumers who won't spend their last few pennies propping up Mammon's false front.

Well you know what? We're going to stop shopping. Let's see where that leaves the corporate fascists who have despoiled the world and ruined everything in exchange for zero-sum endless exponential growth fantasies.

And once we're free of them, we can go back to emphasizing life instead of profit.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

America's Self Portrait

Any swimsuit shows more than Annie Liebovitz's photograph of Miley Cyrus shows, so it's not about skin. Nor is the pose sexual in any way, except perhaps to the perverts who are calling it dirty. It is a classical pose, and lovely in composition, execution, and subject.

Controlling Miley's billion-dollar potential, and hijacking the power of her celebrity and publicity, drives the fake uproar, and so far not one sane analysis has appeared in the media. Charges of pedophilia and worse are thrown with cynical glee by sick, twisted bottom feeders intent on keeping America's panic about sex and women's sexuality at fever pitch.

Take a breath, people. Miley Cyrus is the latest in a long line of young women being exploited by show business. She is a 15 year old girl at the core of all that, and the picture is no big deal.

None of this is, except to the exploiters.

Are you one of them?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Cowboy Hemingway By Way Of Stephen King

No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy combines cowboy stoicism with Hemingway’s fatalism. It is written in a laconic vernacular matched to the people it presents so vividly, and by the end you understand that it just might be a horror novel, along with everything else it is. Obliquely, there are shades of Stephen King’s The Stand in it.

What else the book is makes a long list. It is powerful, it is immense fun to read, and it is philosophically serious in ways most philosophers could not touch. What is wrong with everything? Why do people do such horrible things? Is there any way to stop this train wreck? The book is an answer to these and many other deep, troubling questions, including what it means to grow old and how to behave when the old ideals no longer work.

When it comes to the moral decay at the core of our national catastrophe, McCarthy does not flinch. Serious fiction in popular form describes this book perfectly. It demonstrates how much more truth fiction carries, as compared with nonfiction and so-called news. It also shows us our own inertia and sometimes our apathy. The people in it live, breath, bleed, and die in ways you recognize and can empathize with. You’ve met them all.

You might be one of them.

As prose, McCarthy’s book is laconic enough for Gary Cooper at his most eloquent. And yet it wriggles with life like you’ve picked up a snake. As fiction, it is dead real. As a rumination on how life works, it is terrifyingly blunt and exhilaratingly swift in its divine justice.

What lets it into the Horror chamber is the whiff of brimstone surrounding the character of Anton Chigurh. He is the quintessential killer. He seems indestructible, maybe literally. He comes and goes like a ghost, so much so that not all the cops in the book believe he’s real. By the end of the book, despite or maybe because his portrayal is so vivid, you’re not sure either.

No one in the book is a paragon. No one is a caricature. People are real, dialogue is pitch perfect, and every voice comes through clear and full.

Unforeseen consequences are one of its themes. Temptation is there, and the high cost of minor human foibles, along with duty, honor, courage, and cowardice. Not all the sociopaths carry guns in this book. Some of the worst have clean hands and air conditioned penthouse suite offices. Big Oil and Big Drug Smuggling are so intertwined as to be the same basic thing, and addictions are addressed, too, but not the narcotic kind.

There is a killing spree in the book but it is no Starkweather report. It is as logical and rational as clockwork, and it is even explained by Chigurh, who is among the most fastidious killers to walk the earth.

Yes, this is a book full of violence. It is also full of compassion, irony, and humor. Not Roadrunner humor, nor Twain humor. More like Ambrose Bierce alone in a room after a bad day.

There are moments of life so bright the reader laughs aloud in recognition. There are instances of insight so true tears well up. It is the kind of book you can read in one sitting but stretch out for a week so you can savor it.

I haven’t seen the Coen Brothers movie yet. Looking forward to it, but in no hurry. The book’s enough.

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Parsing the Genre-Bound

The more I see of the genre-bound, the more I find to dislike about them.  They are the inverse of imaginative.  Most are tiny ego-ridden martinets determined to control the world by sarcasm and passive aggression. Most are depressive losers, unsocialized and dysfunctional in their flab, propellor beanies, and Hawaiian shirts.  They are desperate to belong and fancy themselves misunderstood geniuses and brilliant iconoclastic nonconformists, even though their every word and gesture is calculated to thwart a larger world that barely notices them.  Their strict conformity to genre patterns, their insular reference system, and their tree-house club code talk ensure they never grow up, never join the real world, and never have to be judged by any standards worthy of aspiration.  Elevating the unprofessional and denigrating mass appeal, they are as divisive and irrelevant as any arch academic.  
The chip of bitter resentment on their shoulder is that of an infant who cannot hold center stage 24 hours a day, and their conventions are the social equivalent of a tantrum.  By all means keep genre apart from mainstream writing; there is good reason it has been shunted to one small backwater.

I recant.

Yes, I once worked the genre fields. In my defense I can only say that there was no choice. I am not rich, did not have my way paid through an Ivy League school, and I am not related by blood or money to a New York City publisher. I did not even get to college, having had no money, so I did not even serve apprenticeship as a first reader or New Yorker fact checker.

Worse, I am from the Lauren Highlands of Western Pennsylvania. That makes me an Appalachian hick. Ask any metropolitan New Yorker. Might as well wear bib overalls without a shirt or shoes and chew on a piece of straw once I’ve admitted such lowly origins.

Which would be okay, marginally, if my grandfather had been a senator, or my father had delivered bribes in smoke-filled back rooms for a political machine in a big city.

Without such a pedigree, though, I was forced to go the genre route if I wanted to become a writer. Forced, in fact, to read all the hard-boiled noir and wild pulp fiction and Golden Age SF and High Fantasy and splatterpunk Horror I could get my hands on. To learn craft I had to pay attention to George Scithers as he grumbled about marks on paper, and I had to bone up on all of Harlan Ellison’s story introductions so I could learn how Lester del Rey grew him from a bean and how Silverbob could write twenty stories a day without pausing for a beer, or how John W. Campbell coached stories out of a snot-nosed Asimov, or the way Heinlein bullied his way to bestsellerdom, or how Clarke wrote from Sri Lanka and Bradbury wrote a story a week and had to rent typewriter time at the public library for a dime an hour so he could submit one every Saturday morning.

It was hell but the indoctrination never ended. My world focused on telling stories about real people with plenty of action. Active voice, show don’t tell, and rewrite until you get the Pet Milk version; those were my lessons.

I wrote on loose leaf notebook paper, in three ring binders, using 19¢ Bics. I pounded on an old Royal manual heavier than my weekly groceries and smeared my fingers switching out used ink ribbons. I longed for an IBM Selectric so I could watch the silver ball whip around creating words but settled for a Brother electronic with interchangeable type wheels, plastic ribbon cartridges, and automatic error correction ribbons, which sure beat those little sheets of Whiteout.

Dean Koontz taught me to finish one page before moving on to the next. He also taught me to make sure the ending paid off big and was not just tacked on.

Heinlein’s rules of writing kept me finishing what I started and keeping stories on the market until sold. I vowed never to rewrite a finished story except to an editor’s request and hoped to follow RAH to the bestseller list.

Worst of all I learned to expect to be paid. Genre is a crass set of categories, focused on money instead of the honor of seeing your name in print. Genre’s insistence on writing for a certain number of pennies per word mocked the gentleman’s game writing had always been for the lucky, connected, elevated few.

There I sat, reduced to counting my words so I could figure out how many to claim if it ever came time to be paid for one of my stories. Shame does not begin to cover it. Writing was actually compared to professionalism, as if art could ever be a mere job, as if meeting deadlines and taking one’s work seriously in terms of supply and demand did not demean the artist squirming inside every writer.

Such affronts lessened the sting of rejection.

That the most popular movies and books of all time are genre only proves genre’s lowest common denominator appeal. How can a book be any good if more than a handful of the brightest academics can understand and enjoy it? How can writing be wonderful if any blue-collar working slob can read and like it?

Heinlein brought it home by stating flatly: You’re competing for beer money. He meant your stories had to appeal to the average working joe or jane more than a six pack of beer; can it get any less refined? Genre is for the masses.

And now, underpublished and contaminated by genre, all I can do is limp along telling my unrestrained stories about monsters, unreal worlds, and other childish things not found, mentioned, or even thought of in a typical upper class penthouse suite during cocktail hour’s furtive adultery.

I can but hope to entertain the masses, or at least let ‘em get away a little while. I’m forced to leave the high art to the O’Haras, the Cheevers, and the Updikes.

I recanted but, really, I can’t afford to. After all, with any luck, I might be up for a Nebula or Hugo award one of these days, or have one of my franchise ideas picked up by Tor, or best of all be the next Philip K. Dick and have dozens of my stories made into blockbuster Hollywood movies even as academics discover how philosophical and ironic I was all along.

Yeah, the more I see of the genre-bound, the more I find to dislike, but what am I supposed to do, give up show business?

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Get With the New Program

Writers are fiction programmers.

If we begin viewing fiction as software, and writing fiction as programming, then we can free ourselves from publishing’s hard copy centric business model and move it into at least the 20th Century, if not quite the 21st.

You can’t tell yourself a story as good as a story Stephen King can tell you, so you pay to read, hear, or see his. Delivery system matters little. You can have it in hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, on a CD-ROM, on a cassette tape, or filmed as a movie on a theater screen, TV screen, computer screen, iPod, or cell phone. Movies are delivered mostly on DVD but sometimes still on VCR tapes, and electronically.

What matters is the story you are after, not the format it comes in.

And even if you are Neil Gaiman or Peter Straub, and can tell good stories on your own, you still can’t tell yourself a Stephen King story, so you’ll still pay to get one of his, if you like his work.

A story is mental. Stories are ideas presented in a certain way to provide an experience. Each story is software.

Fiction writers program a story experience and we then buy access to it. Access can be in readable, audible, or visual form.

Publishing needs to begin viewing fiction as software to be licensed. Buying a license for a single download in one or more formats is how fiction should be acquired.

A new market model: Publishers sell access to programs, (stories), via a variety of formats or delivery platforms.

Writers license their programs, (stories), to publishers or license access directly to consumers via the internet or other systems.

Publishers will be able to offer value-added aspects such as multiple formats, backup files, and, soon, hypertext or other multimedia enhancement. At core, though, each story is a programmed experience access to which is to be licensed on a per-download basis. Download is an electronic term but a physical copy of a book, printed and bound, will count as a single instance of access. Some publishers may wish to offer multiple formats for a single price; audio and electronic downloads if one buys a hard copy, for instance.

This simple shift of outlook can and very likely will transform publishing and writing. It is a good interim solution to the many questions facing intellectual copyright as technology brings such rapid changes.

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Monday, April 7, 2008

A Cure for Style

What is a writing style and how do we get or avoid it and can it be cured?

Style is how you think because style runs deeper than just choice of word, topos, or trope. If it were otherwise, then parodies of Lovecraft or Hemingway would be as good as the best of the originals. They never are because they focus only on the glittery surface of style, not the thinking that led to those choices.

Writers with distinct voices don't rely on an aggregation of the elements of style. Instead, they think in a distinctive way. Vonnegut is a good example. His voice is much more in how he thinks than what word choices he makes, or what images he deploys. He makes us see things in new ways, from angles we may not have thought of before.

Yes, style can consciously be analyzed and reproduced. This can, as you pointed out, easily lead to self-parody. Hemingway ended up that way as his thinking was gradually scrambled and he clung more to method than manner of thought.

Recipe for style: Think twice, write once. Then rewrite for clarity and concision.

Yes, style shifts with mood and changes with need. Creating atmosphere specific to each tale may require a tone different with each.

As with actors, some styles always play themselves, others are recognized only upon seeing a by-line. Is your style to be movie star or character actor?

Style is either the putting on, or the taking off, of a mask of words.  It is either misdirection or revelation.  It is, most often, all these things at once, most of it done unconsciously.

It is obvious that a search for the right metaphor is part of my style, for instance. It is all rooted in how I think. Modeling is part of my makeup.

In no way am I advocating that art and artist are the same, please understand that. Art and artist, although obviously on intimate terms, often do not reflect each other, at least not in ways humanoid primates can explain. Vile reprobates can produce sublime sacred art and saints can produce the scurviest pornography - go figure.

Yet, at root, it's part and parcel with how they think. Whether it reveals, conceals, or does a bit of both inevitably, ultimately style is thinking because that is what influences preference and choice.

Jagger famously said It’s the singer, not the song. Diane Keaton in ANNIE HALL showed it was the person, not the clothes, that creates style.

Style is how, not what. Focusing on the what of style helps to parse it for each given writer but learning how to be true to one’s self is the deeply personal thing that produces real style.

To cure style simply write to another’s standards. Not only is this a simple, inexpensive cure, but a popular one, to judge by much of what’s published.

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