Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Education & How To Fix It

Some say education is broken because people want it that way, that it reflects society's wishes.

Isn't it more that very few of the public has much say, or much concern, about what is included in curriculum, preferring to focus on budgets and on what is kept OUT of the curriculum?

In Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynmann, the Nobel Prize for Physics winning scientist tells of spotting errors in his son's math book. Thinking he'd be welcome, he attended a school board meeting and asked that the texts be changed. He at once learned that fixing errors, even in math texts, is so cost-prohibitive, and so onerous a chore, that no one ever does it. He further learned that school boards had little to no say in text content. And he was outraged to learn that the errors were of no concern among the majority on the board, which was much more focused on budget, and on keeping their pet peeve issues from making inroads.

It's a sobering, chastising story and should sicken everyone. We've fallen to absurdly low levels in education, science, math, medicine, and even art, thanks to government meddling and high-handed textbook publishers.

Why blame publishers? Their outrageous prices for their texts have translated into stagnation for curricula in financially strapped school systems. They need the money to keep the building from falling down -- although most schools are falling apart along with all the rest of America's infrastructure, also thanks to government greed and neglect, and don't get me started on the outrageous spending for football teams, stadiums, and so on, to the neglect of all else-- so they defer and delay buying new texts year after year until you have situations, as I experienced growing up, in which kids are learning from literally the same physical books their parents learned from.

When I went to school we had out-dated maps and had to learn them in order to conform to the out-dated tests based upon those maps. How is this education? It is, instead, absurd conformity to dogmatic, and static, curricula. It is learning by rote without regard to content.

Out-dated texts, out-moded teaching materials, and decrepit equipment all conspire to graduate students ignorant of basics mastered by much younger children in most other countries. Bravo, No Child Left Behind, a cynical and vile program dedicated to ensuring the abject failure of public schools in order to divert public money to private pockets, where the education is biased, partisan, and not only useless, but harmful.

How can we deal with all this?

With the advent of the digital age, there is no longer any cost worth mentioning involved in correcting errors, and no excuse for not keeping all subjects up-to-date and informative, with plenty of interactive multi-disciplinary multi-media links and hypertexts and so on. Replace books with laptops or even iPods and you can attain this easily, and for a one-time cost that is far cheaper than replacing text books.

So there's the simple solution. Oh, and keeping special interest groups out of education would help, too, along with paying teachers as the professionals they should be. Standards can be set and maintained for teachers, and for curricula. It's a simple matter of the public realizing this and insisting on it.

Chemistry of Candles

--I found this both goofy and interesting.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Mood's Off

My mood’s off.

I’m riddled by unresolved anxieties; I suffer paranoia that I feel is legitimate, being based on real threats; and I am ridden by worries stemming from imagination and a dark cast of mind instilled by decades of the world’s hostility, from school yard bullies to adult betrayals.

My nightmares are angry, sexual, and political, yet vague, like rock lyrics.

“The Obama campaign has been saying some pretty nasty things about Western Pennsylvania,” McCain said recently, at a stump speech. He paused for booing, then said, “And I’d just like to say I couldn’t agree with them more.”

He went on to try to correct his gaffe but fumbled it every bit as badly as W might have.

The audience waited it out, then obediently applauded anyway, despite the fact that, if he’d said anything coherent whatsoever, it insulted them and patronized their intelligence.

The man is a doddering, surly fuck-up. Palin’s a deranged, delusional beauty-queen religious freak. Of course they’re serious candidates. Of course they may even win.

How can this be?

This is America. We’re all stupid and crazy here. We have an unerring instinct to choose the worst.

And why is America anti-intellectual and opposed to imagination? Goes right back to the Puritans. Their legacy has driven us, as a nation, into self-hating depression and madness.

That dark, ugly street of dread, broken dreams forms America’s mental main street. We all live nearer to it or farther from it, but connected to it always, directly. Its run-offs taint our wells, stain our walls.

Extended Metaphor Theater proudly presents: Puritanism As Sewage -- An American Truthiness. Starring: The Floating Turds Dick, George, Karl, John, Don, Condoleeza, Bomber, and Sarah, and all the others in the Toilet Bowl Ring.

There is already a Palin In 2012 campaign. Only she, it seems, can fix America’s broken soul. Thus is a political genius the likes of Reagan born again among us.

Is Mt. Rushmore ready for boobs? The other kind, I mean.

Anyone who has faced prejudice knows the horror of unexamined assumptions and received wisdom. Yet we allow ourselves to be bashed on the head with our own bigotry every time there is a political campaign. I think it’s apathy more than despair or cynicism that lets us go on like this, even though we all know it’s wrong.

Change -- that jingoistic Pavlovian bell the liars keep chiming -- requires effort and America is long since out of the trying game. If we weren’t all so gluttonous we’d none of us give a shit. Instead, though, we just want more, and more, and more. Paging Mr. Creosote.

My mood’s off and is likely to stay that way.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Bowl Full

The only way it matters is intensely
Your weakness is a power over you
Mine eyes have seen the glory hole Calcutta
We blew our load on faces turning blue

Grapple snakes and slither chains
A strangulation cure
Sweet asphyxiation
Keeps the constitution pure

Deploy the guns of shit and shoot
Decry a hundred lawyers lying
Impeach whoever gave the go
Condemn in heaven’s name our buying

The only hay it gathers is without us
Our strongmen are so vulnerable now
Their minds exploded inward at conception
They sucked us dry, we took their final bow

Knife her honey
Knife her whole
Knife her sticky
Fill her bowl

Knife her money
Knife her dole
Knife her tricky
Fill her bowl

Raffle bakes and blistered brains
Exsanguination, sure
Sour postulation
Stops the institution’s lure

The holy day, it shatters with our laughter
The powers gather arguments at dawn
The words employed to seal the deal’s disaster
Are scattered dead and bloody on your lawn

Knife her funny
Knife her roll
Knife her, Dicky
Fill her bowl
Knife and fill her bowl

--Monkey Dogs, "Bowl Full" from TWICE BITTEN

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Defy the Genre Embargo

The notion is childish that certain elements of or approaches to fiction belong strictly to one major camp and may not legitimately be used by any other camp. Yet this stance defines American writing, which has been called “...insular and too much under the sway of its own popular culture,” by the likes of Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Nobel Prize Academy.

How others see us may not matter much to our daily stint, but it certainly affects distribution, readership, and sales. It might offer useful insights, too.

Insular means, according to my on-board dictionary, “ignorant of or uninterested in cultures, ideas, or peoples outside one's own experience; lacking contact with other people.” Provincial, in other words. Village idiots with no concept of a world larger than our own back yards. This view contrasts just slightly with our own view of ourselves as world-striding superpower champions of all we attempt, doesn’t it?

And yet, look what we do to ourselves. Aside from the unblinking narcissism of our culture, and the self-congratulatory tone of our self-criticism, we divide our best efforts into partisan opponents. Mainstream versus genre fiction is the focus here. That dichotomy weakens both sides.

American literature as a whole keeps itself apart from World literature. Genre compounds the error by trying to seal itself off from the mainstream American fiction. This puts it twice-removed from World literature.

Genre fiction wants to be a private club. Mainstream wants an open door policy while reserving the right to sweep out the riffraff when it’s time for a celebration of self. Both squabble as if exclusion is an answer in and of itself.

A palpable resentment shudders through fandom, the loose group of self-identified genre fiction enthusiasts, every time a writer whose work usually appears in mainstream market categories gains praise, sales, and often Hollywood options by using genre elements. That is how it’s perceived: “They” “stole” “our” genre elements. As if only writers whose work is marketed as genre are legitimately allowed to use such elements.

And, the complaint continues, even worse, genre works are never awarded attention, acclaim, or movie money -- despite, they point out salaciously, the top-grossing movies of all time being genre.

Of course, don’t ask them how Hollywood succeeds on those rare occasions when it translates genre works to the big screen. That’s a whole other kettle of bile to be spilled on a separate discussion entirely.

So their shoulder chip is two-tier, a double-cheeseburger of lukewarm resentment; we’re excluded, and they steal from us. This leads to talk of of the genre ghetto, exploitation, and east coast snobbery. And like most such bitterness, there is some truth in it. Yes, genre work is generally ignored by academics, literary award committees, and serious mainstream critics. Yes, occasional genre elements are praised as if new by mainstream critics, who remain willfully unaware of the specifics and contents of genre fiction’s pulp tradition.

When we examine the standards by which works are judged, however, we see a definite emphasis gap. For the most part, novels that have won the top genre awards are more concerned about idea and plot than writing quality, characterization, and exploration of themes. Mainstream award winners, genre readers complain, aren’t about anything; they have no grand ideas; they focus on everyday minutiae; they have no action; they’re boring...

Again, movies may be an instructive example. Blockbusters tend to be laden with stunts, special effects, and action peppered with catch phrases. Characters are sketched in brief, bold terms. Such movies take us away from our everyday world. They’re generally called escapism.

Then there are the so-called serious movies. Many are costume pieces dealing in comedy of manners or courtship rituals from the Seventeenth century. Some are character portraits of people mired in hopeless lives. Some are examinations of the consequences of crisis, or some social ill such as alcoholism or spousal abuse. These movies tend to win awards but no big audiences. Art films, they’re often called. Made for art’s sake, not to please audiences or to allow the masses to escape the humdrum of their daily lives. Hell, some even have subtitles. If we wanted to read, we wouldn’t have gone to the movies, they cry. And who are all these foreigners? Where’s my favorite movie star?

Genre, for the most part, falls into the first category, escapism. This is not to say genre works can, must, or do not address serious themes. Many do. But the main goal is entertainment and, failing that, diversion, in genre fiction. This is a noble art in itself.

Mainstream fiction, for the most part, adds insight and commentary to escapism. Yes, many mainstream works are about taking us away from quotidian reality. Most, however, are also concerned with showing a commonality among humanity’s diverse specimens, or revealing the inner secrets of private lives, or making points about how and why society is decaying.

Vonnegut wrote: “Listen. All great literature is about what a bummer it is to be a human being: Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Red Badge of Courage, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Crime and Punishment, the Bible and The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

Genre fiction is often the opposite, about how great it is to be a humanoid primate conquering the universe and rearranging things so we’re the center of it all. Optimism is a keynote in science fiction, for instance. As Harlan Ellison once pointed out, even dystopias are optimistic because they mean there is someone left to complain about how bad it is. Mysteries are optimistic about restoring order from chaos. Fantasy and Romance both speak to wish fulfillment, while even Horror deals with the bastards getting their comeuppance.

In modern political discourse -- all the shouting and lying, yes -- it’s common to refer disparagingly to “reality-based” thinking. The 17 October 2004 New York Times Magazine ran an article by Ron Suskind. In it, an unnamed aide to George W. Bush said, “You’re in what we call the reality-based community, people who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we’ll act again, creating other realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

What sort of literature would come from such breathtaking solipsism? Would it not be literature that is insular and too much under the sway of its own culture?

And what of the escapist subset of such a literature? Would it not concern itself with mythic stories of conquest, and examinations of glorious dreams full of wish-fulfillment?

A wider world exists. Noticing it, finding out about it, and exploring it would expand our base of reference. Joining in and participating in a wider world outside this house of cards we’ve built would strengthen the global, which is to say human, appeal of our fiction. This would lead to much larger readership and all that a big audience can bring and bestow.

Isn’t it time to stop hugging the elements of genre so tightly? Isn’t it time to share them not only with our own mainstream, but to trade them with a wider world?

Isn’t it time to defy the genre embargo?

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Rising Above Miscegenation

Ursula K. LeGuin spoke of miscegenation between genre and mainstream fiction. She discussed briefly how the two are distinct in approach and form. She thought the mainstream benefitted but wasn’t too sure genre gained from such exchanges and mergers.

What mainstream fiction tends to get from genre is imaginative elements. Magic realism for the mainstream critics was what genre critics called fantasy all along, for instance. Such elements can enliven basics seen too many times before.

Genre fiction tends to take realism from mainstream fiction. A grittier sense of presence, a more realistic depiction of behavior or setting results. This can refresh tired ideas and threadbare executions.

In genre fiction, plot counts most. So do ideas. In mainstream fiction, character and setting are emphasized. This simple shift of emphasis has created a gap in American fiction that does not exist as strongly elsewhere in the world. Elsewhere -- Britain for example -- the differences are seen as valid variants, rather than distinctions. Genre and mainstream exist there intermingled. A writer can be considered serious while writing mystery or science fiction, there. Anthony Burgess is an example. In Britain, a genre writer can win serious literary awards for work that crosses or blurs genre lines. Martin Amis comes to mind.

Stateside, fen are upset by writers perceived generally as literary who “pilfer” genre elements and end up being recognized for innovation. Fen grouse about Margaret Atwood for swooping down from her literary heights to scarf up some science fictional insight in The Handmaid’s Tale, which went on to glean much acclaim and, incidentally, became a best-seller and major movie. Fen sneer at mystery writer P. D. James for using science fictional tricks in Children of Men, a book that also won acclaim, sold hugely well, and became a big movie. Mostly the fen resent all the attention the genre elements in such works receive from the mainstream critics, as if such things had never existed before, let alone been pioneered by pre-WW II pulp writers and their literary offspring.

Where, fen whine, is the mainstream or academic praise for Frank Herbert’s Dune or for Johanna Russ’s The Female Man?

Oh, but when Ursula K. LeGuin manages to jump the gap from a start in genre fiction to mainstream literary respectability, some fen wonder if she’s sold out, or if she’s even written “real” science fiction all along?

They pulled the same on Ray Bradbury. “He never really wrote science fiction or fantasy, it was always mainstream fabulism,” fen say, when the quality of his prose and the purity of his voice prompts mainstream recognition.

Of course, they skip over the work of Philip K. Dick, which has become a favorite of academics and has, oddly, been made into many movies since PKD’s death. Hell, it’s even been chosen for the Library of America fancy book gimmick, considered prestigious by collectors.

Suffice it to say that, stateside at least, the standards to which fiction are held vary between genre and mainstream. What are valid variations elsewhere are distinctions keeping groups separate here.

Miscegenation means interbreeding between distinct races. It is an ugly term. It implies purity contaminated. It leads to terms like maroon and mulatto

And sure enough, as fen eagerly point out, genre fiction, particularly science fiction, has been singled out stateside for prejudicial treatment. It’s been the victim of unwarranted slurs, scurrilous lies, and mean spirited analysis. It’s been held in contempt and used as a reason for automatic and universal dismissal from serious contention for major literary prizes.

The very term genre fiction carries a stigma of cookie-cutter lack of quality. Unfairly, all examples are judged by the worst among them. Pulp fiction from 50 years ago continues to define academic response to genre fiction today.

This despite many mainstream writers pilfering genre tropes, fen complain. How come it’s okay when they do it?

It’s how they do it, comes the response from the snob side of the divide. Learn to write better, the mainstream critics sneer.

By whose standards? That should be the question. If it is acknowledged that different standards apply, then it must also be acknowledged that a given work may simultaneously be excellent and terrible, depending on what critic is making the assessment.

Can the standards merge?

In the 1970s, a New Wave hit genre fiction, especially science fiction. Writers brought many new tricks, from mainstream literary writing classes. Purists balked. Pulp standards of writing developed by scientists and engineers, who concentrated on idea and plot, became Golden, while the New Wave stuff was viewed as effete, affected, and ineffectual. Who wanted all those characters cluttering things up; genre fiction required only cardboard cut-outs as place markers for ideas.

And so the debate devolved at once into name calling and posturing. It remains acrimonious to this day, despite decades of excellent work meshing the competing standards.

Which brings us back to Ursula K. LeGuin’s remark about miscegenation. She’s not sure genre benefits from an influx of mainstream elements?

First, consider the source of this comment; the latest issue of LOCUS, the newspaper of science fiction and fantasy publishing. She was speaking to a select audience and perhaps playing to its perceived prejudices.

Second, consider that LeGuin’s work itself represents some of the finest merging -- miscegenation -- available. She has always written pure science fiction with high mainstream standards of prose and character, setting and theme. Her work is neither white nor black but bronze and brown, a burnished alloy combining the best of both.

Third, consider that miscegenation is an old-fashioned, outdated word, long overdue for an overhaul. Perhaps that is what we can learn from her comment, that the new mix, as with hybrids everywhere, is stronger and healthier than either of its parents.

Of the New Wave herself, LeGuin may be looking forward to a time when the only consideration is not genre versus mainstream, but quality of writing. A good story well told is all that matters, in the end. Categorical thinking should be a thing of the past, an embarrassment like racism or any other kind of prejudice and bigotry.

Sure, some of us will always prefer stories with certain types of elements in them; that’s a matter of taste and education. But excluding work, not even giving it a chance, simply because it emphasizes one set of standards over another, or contains one set of elements and not another, is absurd.

It simply does not matter what percentage of what kind of “blood” one carries from one’s ancestry, and it simply does not matter what percentage of what arbitrary literary grouping a story contains.

We need to be better than that, like the best of today’s fiction.

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