Thursday, November 20, 2008

Com Vs. Code: A Look Into the Future

“Communication Versus Codes:
A Look Into the Near Future”

Pulitzer insisted on plain prose and established it as standard, to reach the masses. Were, then, prior newspapers and their verbosity aimed to miss the masses?

Did wading through them drag general literacy up? Certainly the average person today can’t make sense of newspapers from yesterday. The virtue of being immediately understood degraded the urge to accomplish more complex and subtle reading.

This means clarity is a mixed blessing and that there can be a use for, and gains to be had by, being indirect.

Was putting plain prose into daily print what allowed American vernacular finally to be allowed into, and viewed as, literature?

Oral tradition predates literary tradition. Speech comes before writing. Returning writing to a speaker’s syntax offers powerful advantages. It shatters the chains of formalism and allows a wider range of topics and voices into literary culture. However, stating things simply seems to have tended to drag thinking into simplicity, too. This is a loss.

It’s evident mass literacy has a major impact on literary culture, forcing it toward plain prose. What is less evident is the impatience plainness plants in us for subtlety and complexity of thought. Cut to the chase, we say; give us the gist, and keep it stupidly simple.

It is perhaps predictable that there is an academic backlash against plain prose. It insists that abstract, fancy prose is superior.

Is this protective snobbery covering up the fact that straightforward prose can accomplish everything maze-like prose can, and more? Or is it an acknowledgment of all the grace notes and lesser points we’ve lost to bluntness?

A debate rages. It’s about clarity of thought and expression versus protection of turf. One group states that complex, layered, even convoluted thoughts can be expressed simply, even if doing so requires sequential presentation with successive points built upon. Another advocates a more oblique approach, claiming that only via cumulative side points can the main point become a worthwhile summation. Ephemeral values must be kept safe at the heart of a tangled garden of words.

Academic prose is but bad taste, say some. It cries for citation and stifles originality. Conformity is academia’s way of clinging to a hollow relevance. Obfuscation is the ivy-covered tower’s refuge for pseudo intellectuals. It is an attempt to exclude the masses in favor of snobbery.

Another group asks, if writing is communicative, should it not be inclusive? Does not democratic idealism require a literature understandable by all? Is not fostering isolated elitism and specialism just another way of shutting down communication?

What of vocabulary? Are big words snobbish? Are plain words always better? How can one choose the right word, and by whose standards, on what scale?

Eschew obfuscation, or be brief? Is concise the same as short, though? Is not the sum of some words greater than the summation of their component parts?

Both sides create extremes. Opposite Dr. Seuss one finds Finnegans Wake. Faulkner called Hemingway a dolt and mocked his 400-word vocabulary. Dickens wrote fat books concisely while Hawthorne wrote as if paid by the run-on sentence. Hugo wrote pages of words that cannot be diagrammed into sentences while Robbe-Grillet wrote lists.

Ideals duel. Invisible prose squares off against the paragraph as sculpture. Deconstructionists sneer at the notion that the writer can know what he or she meant by what’s written, while cyberpunks go binary in a street rebellion of electronic tagging.

Communication fights Codes. Some want any reader to be able to understand, others want only prepared audiences to have a chance to extract hidden meaning.

Both extremes use words like masks.

Masks both hide and show. They conceal and reveal at the same time. What you choose to mask, and what kind of mask you choose, reveal hidden things, even as they cover up others.

On the individual scale, it is a matter of taste. An impatience with gallimaufry and drawn out manipulation leads to a preference for clean, clear prose. An enjoyment of immersion and a fascination with involvement leads to a preference for more baroque writing.

On a social scale, however, a balance must be struck between the blunt and the fine. Intelligence and information thrive, or wither, through presentation. A lecture delivered in rudimentary language may fail to impart anything, while verbosity and high verbal skills applied to a kindergarten lesson may simply baffle.

Consider your audience, journalists are told. Write for the reader. Even in fiction, if you stray too far from reader expectations, reader interest is lost. Sales decline. Publishers move on to someone else.

When Pulitzer focused on reaching the masses, his agenda was to sell more newspapers than Hearst, yes, but his ulterior motive was political. He wanted to move things his way.

Rather than address the well-educated ruling class, he aimed at the semi-educated working class. He went native, in a way, so his influence would be delivered in their everyday language.

Writing fiction sways between giving readers what they want -- diversion and entertainment -- and expressing the writer’s concerns -- personal and political obsessions. It balances between journalism and fine art.

Journalism influenced fiction writing more than the reverse due to numbers. More people read newspapers than fiction.

Today, that may not be true. Today, the news delivery systems of choice are the internet and TV, especially TV comedians. TV news has lost luster due to a shift from informing to entertaining. Drawing an audience matters more than informing the public, so demographics surveys and playing to perceived audience bias slants news away from objective information and toward propaganda. People respond by turning elsewhere.

When an event becomes known, people are apt now to jump online. There they can find multiple sources, from reliable to crazy. They can sift out their own version of what happened from multiple views.

Today’s fiction delivery systems of choice are movies and TV shows. Books that most closely resemble the movie or TV series experience sell best. This includes franchise fiction based on established story lines such as Star Wars and Star Trek.

So audiovisual media are the biggest influence on literature today. Literary culture is, in fact, merging with AV culture in the form of computer games. Video games often provide detailed story lines even more developed than those found in Victorian novels. Reading itself may become obsolete when AV interfaces replace the keyboard model on handheld devices. Replacing the device with implanted subcutaneous chips is a next logical phase, even as WiFi replaces wire and thermal and light sourced power generation replaces batteries and alternating current generators.

It is not far-fetched to envision individuals in the near future mentally involved with a world-spanning web of internet-based sub-realities, pocket universes, and sites without spatial locale. They will have instant global communication and awareness. They will be able to store information for later perusal, or tap into any information source needed, or find someone to help them.

Even then there will no doubt be those favoring code over com. They will seek to corral sectors of the mind-web for private projects or just for the sake of secrecy and criminality. The two may end up being equated.

Privacy, being a half-brother to secrecy, may also end up being equated with criminality, or antisocial tendencies at least. So may ownership, property, and notions of control.

Symbolic behavior, symbols, and other abstractions may end up being the last refuge of individualism. At that point communication will have won, or enclaves of Luddites will have developed to reject technology’s changes. Clinging won’t help, though.

Change, being the only constant, favors open communication.

Knowing this, it becomes obvious that plain prose and clear thought are positive, while obfuscation, obscuritanism, and contrary concealment must be seen as negative, in terms of both individual and social progress.

Aspects of this have the potential to become fascist. Frightened conformists seek to control what they cannot understand. Despite any such setbacks, it looks as if open communication will ultimately prevail.

Right now there is no need to make such harsh choices. Right now there is room for utopia and dystopia. It may not be long, though, before how we communicate breaks the code of human nature and allows us to live as one seething, incredibly varied, and powerful organism.

The fearful will speak of hive mind. The unafraid will see it as a step toward being spiritually united.

All this from how we read and write.

/// /// ///

Friday, November 14, 2008

Genre Evolution

Genre Evolution:
Establish patterns. Set rules. Debate rules. Break rules. Argue rules. Ignore rules. Establish new patterns. Set new rules. Debate new rules. Break new rules. Argue new rules. Ignore new rules. Romanticize old patterns. Repeat until nothing really changes.


Moribund means almost extinct. It means doomed. If something is moribund, it means it is on its last legs. It is dying, fading, going, nearly gone.

Take science fiction, or any other genre you wish, as an example. It’s been moribund since inception. Since first noticed it has been decried as a lost cause.

This means genre evolution happens the instant a genre is identified. It’s inherent in genre itself. Humanoid primates break things, rules prime among them. We are destructive even in our creativity. We set up patterns and rules to react against. Rebels all, we keep asking, “Whatcha got?”

Collective boredom sets in now and then. During the Pulp Era one of the biggest categories was Sports Fiction. It bloomed and withered within a decade or so. Yet Hollywood retains it as a market category, having refreshed it with the simple addition of the phrase, “Based on a True Story.”

Space Opera, a subcategory of science fiction, went through a similar cycle. It faded as harsher views blossomed in Dystopia. Realpolitik kept things grim for awhile. Dystopia is currently waning even as space opera is being revitalized by an injection of romance, of all things. Gone are the days when sf was all male and all females brought to it were cooties.

In mystery fiction, Tea Cozy gave way to Hard Boiled, which paved the streetwise way for Police Procedural. Spenser wore his feelings for hire on his sleeve, much to Mike Hammer’s disgust, while Spade kept digging and Archer kept flinging outrageous arrows against a sea of sorrow.

Philip Marlowe loosened the terse vocabulary of the crime novel and Dame Agatha stripped away the upper crust’s haughty veneer. This led the way for Tony Strong’s GLBT fiction and van de Wetering’s Zen explorations.

Genre reflects current culture, in short. Evolve means change: Genre changes with the times. Attitudes, venues, and crime scenes vary with our world experience. Locked room gives way to locked email files.

We see ourselves in the victims and the detectives; in the space aliens and astronauts; in the unicorns and wizards; in the monsters and survivors; in the Catherines and Heathcliffs. We are what we write and read.

We are genre, despite much academic sneering. Even literary fiction for tiny, prepared audiences forms a genre, after all. Just more patterns and rules. More debate, argument, and ignorance.

As genre evolves our own changes are chronicled. We look inward sometimes, at other times we look outward. Occasionally we lie to ourselves, and most of our fiction remains a way to get at truth mere fact will not support or reveal. Next time you hear someone decry a genre as worn thin, as ready for the garbage heap, as hopelessly dated and ridiculous, remember, it was always that way and always will be. Genre is nothing but change.

/// /// ///

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Never Again?

I agree wholeheartedly that the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews and others must never be forgotten.  

I also abhor that W repeated it to the utmost of neo con scum ability, and that neither the entire Afghanistan/Iraq debacle nor the so-called War On Terror and its Rendition Gulag have been documented.  It is a calculated lack of documentation so the war crimes will never be known.  It was a way of covering up and not reporting actions that no decent human being could possibly have condoned if confronted directly with the evidence.

Did you know the deniers claim Eisenhower's publicity campaign to spread the word about the Holocaust, and what was found in the concentration camps, was nothing but a propaganda blitz?  Oh yes, they claim this Big Lie. Karl Rove is just another Goebbels  trained at the knee of Newt Gingrich's ideological Go Pac crusaders and there is a long line of such androids waiting to take Lee Atwater's diseased mantle.

Meanwhile, hired guns in the form of mercenaries, who are not answerable to the Geneva Code and other Rules of Engagement, who can ignore the Military Code of Uniform Justice, and who can and do outright crimes on behalf of their secrecy-obsessed masters in undisclosed locations, outnumber the US military.  These mercs are paid extravagantly well and outfitted with all the cutting-edge weapons and state-of-the-art equipment they can use, and then some.

Our military is left underpaid, underfunded, and under manned, while being over-tasked and overburdened to crush-weight.   They are also kept hidden from the American people, with only tame, ideologically approved reporters embedded with field units, and all reports filtered through a Ministry of Lies so dense no truth could ever get through it.  The sacrifice and suffering of these troops, and all the horrors they're forced to perform, are kept hidden by the criminals in charge and by the complicit media.

That the US military allowed itself to be abused like this by such scum is unutterable and should enrage every service member.  Instead, service members fall for jingoism and idealoguery.  They bow to indoctrination and mouth right wing echo chamber hate speech and Double Speak.  Infiltrated true believers in fundamentalist fleece, and implanted ideologues keeping the faith like Fifth Columnists back in WW II, make sure the military is now a "Christian Force" and that dissent of any kind is punished harshly even unto fragging and deaths.  Gestapo tactics are employed to keep people in line and the wounded and shell shocked are thrown away and ignored.

And no one knows much about any of this because it's kept from being seen, reported, or discussed.  Remember the pictures of the flag-draped coffins?  Remember Viet Nam on our TV sets?  

No reminders of war's horror and crimes now.  And to speak of it is to be labeled "disloyal to Der Fatherland..."

They use Homeland Security -- which is what KGB meant -- openly for their control group of scare mongers and hate spewers.  They demand conformity and punish nonconformists brutally.

What can be done?  Voting for Obama was a good first move, presuming we haven't yet again been duped and manipulated by false promises and stalking horse candidates.

Holding him to our demands is a good second step.  Keep up the pressure to reverse the appalling precedents set by Dicks Like Cheney.

Documentation of every crime and atrocity must be obtained, disseminated, and preserved ASAP; in many cases, it's too late.  Fallujah, for example:  Anyone really know what happened there, other than a massacre that was part of the  near-genocide of "enemy combatants"?

Impeachment, arrest, and trial at the Hague's World Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity should await every high-ranking member of the Bush administration and many lower-ranking members.  Nuremberg was but a light scratch of a start toward rooting out these infections.

Yes, it seems impossible that for the past decade or so we've allowed this country to be run into the ground by fascist sociopaths, and it's time to stop tolerating and even rewarding them.

/// /// ///

Saturday, November 8, 2008

"Arson" by Gene Stewart

On the commute to his home stop -- he kept a sharp watch so the bus did not roll past it -- Esche thought about unseasonable darkness, the Enlightenment, and what little things he might be able to do to make things bright again. He was not sure if he could, or would, do any of them, but just thinking about them made him feel a little better about his day, and his weekend opened up for him. In his imagination, he had gone from huddling in his house reading thrillers and watching old movies to getting out a little, taking in a new movie maybe, perhaps strolling through a museum exhibit. Wasn’t there one on Impressionism downtown?

A couple times that weekend, then, and with complete strangers, he started short conversations about the Enlightenment, and how it had been snuffed out. Bold move for him, but a comfort, somehow.

He wondered afterward if that’s all the stranger had been doing. Just approaching people and planting ideas. He’d met the stranger at the bus stop a week ago, on a rainy evening dark as night. The man had spoken calmly but urgently, and his words stirred Esche. While not like a speech given from a bully pulpit, the man’s words carried a good deal of inspiration, somehow.

It would be a slow, inefficient way to spread a cultural revolution, Esche thought. The more he thought about it that way, though, the more he realized there was probably no better way. As in advertising, whisper campaigns ended up most effective.

And so Esche spoke to others of getting the cultural camp fire going again, to push back the darkness. Without a bubble of light and warmth, what were we but desperate animals doomed to be lost? Some dismissed him as a nut, of course; one older man called him a Hippie; but three or four people thought he had a point and said so, and a couple even contributed interesting angles of their own to the general thesis.

Esche wondered how many passersby had caught a few words to carry with them into their own thoughts. He hoped it was a good many.

Whether the stranger had been a modern-day Lucifer, an out-of-context God, or just a wandering weirdo, a kind of Johnny Appleseed of hope, did not matter any more than whether he’d vanished into shadow or had simply walked away, choosing to miss Esche’s bus home. What mattered to Esche was his idea of rekindling Enlightenment ideals. Esche found it increasingly interesting, layered, and useful as he lived with the notion over time.

Maybe it hadn’t been an overthrow or takeover so much as a failure in daily living that had allowed existence to become so dark, so grim, and so unremittingly crass again. The Enlightenment shined like a sunbeam through storm clouds. Were storm clouds our norm?

If so, it might be time to move on.

Esche went back to work Monday morning refreshed as rarely before. His coworkers noticed it, and he let them in on his secret.

“We can spread the light like fire,” he told them, “until it’s everywhere,” and some among them agreed, either outwardly or in the quiet parts of their lives where an impulse toward better things burned like an ember awaiting kindling.

A horizon aglow, Esche thought, smiling.

/// /// ///

Friday, November 7, 2008

Writing Dies, Too

Writers die. So does their work.

Yes, some work achieves a kind of immortality that lasts at least as long as the culture that produced it. And it’s not always the best or most deserving or most representative work, either. James Fennimore Cooper and L. Ron Hubbard prove that, for differing reasons.

Yes, popularity plays into it. Partly that may be due to sheer numbers. There are so many Stephen King books in print that they have a better chance of being discovered by second and subsequent readers, and generations.

Popularity can lead to discussion, too. Critic chat is not as influential as academic regard, simply because works chosen as school texts are kept in print longer. This doesn’t endear works, though. Catcher In the Rye by J. D. Salinger is forced down the throats of high school kids and this only makes them gag the stronger, both on Holden Caulfield’s whining and on reading as enjoyable entertainment. Another bizarre choice, no doubt approved by Cotton Mather’s horny ghost, is The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel paid-by-the-word-and-bonus-for-convoluted-sentences Hawthorne.

No child left to its own devices, in short.

And no book approved by Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut, either, apparently. Or only books they kicked, chosen as torture.

Some of us were allowed to find our own reading. Most of that group ended up liking to read. Many of us even came down with writing joneses.


Rather than pity the afflicted, enable them by buying some of their stuff, wouldja?

Some prominent writers have died lately, and not just Vonnegut. Michael Crichton, Studs Terkel, Janwillem van de Wetering, Gregory Mcdonald, James Crumley, and Tony Hillerman, to name a few offhand, in no order and for no collective reason.

We note their passing often by grabbing up their work. Freshly dead writers often experience a sales surge. Would’ve done them a lot more good had it come before they left, but their estates are appreciative, not to mention their publishers, who can then start the perennial exploitation dance.

Will their work last?

Some will, yes. For reasons touched upon. Some won’t, for unfathomable reasons.

Some work goes away, then comes back.

Tolkien did that. His work was obscure in my lifetime. He published most of it in the 1930s. Thirty years later it experienced a resurgence that saw it, in another decade, become hugely popular and influential. In part this was due to Lester del Rey coming up with the Fantasy Trilogy gimmick, to feed the Tolkien jones once people had read him. A sales trick became a sub-genre and it prevails to this day. Why sell one book when you can hook readers into at least three?

Much talk has wasted air over whether this “trilogy” nonsense has ruined fiction or stretched storytelling to some logical limit. Maybe it’s just reader patience being stretched.

It seems, now, that Tolkien’s work will last as part of Western Culture. We would not have guessed this in his lifetime.

Which brings us to the rub. That’s the narrow part you have to squeeze through. The part the fat can’t do, be they fat-headed or otherwise burdened and slow.

The rub? We can’t know what writing will last.

A quick and dirty scan tells us to bet on storytelling over style. A good story well told has more chance of lasting, people being generally the same through history. Style changes in a way similar to fashion. Many factors come to bear on style, so that one generation prefers indirection and discretion, another demands the harsh and the blunt.

All that falls away, though, when a story proves robust enough to jump languages and cultures. That is when the story itself, and, often, how it’s told matter most. Basics count in writing as in all things. And story is the basis of writing.

And of course often the books we might choose as ones to last are themselves recapitulations of classic stories. Retelling a standard well, or in a new voice, is the same as singing a standard song. If a new version, take, interpretation, or voice appeals, it is likely to work.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman comes to mind, it being a new take on The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling, themselves in part based on Indian folk tales absorbed by Kipling. Patterns repeat.

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier was, as were many books since, a retelling of The Odyssey by Homer. Homer is a mysterious figure whose tales were not even written down for centuries, so who knows how many refinements and alterations came and went during its oral tradition phase. And yet the basics remain intact. They are recognizable even in American Civil War guise.

Beowulf, oldest known tale in English, is a monster of a horror story, a heroic adventure with lots of violence, action, and drama. It is pulp. It is penny dreadful. It is genre. It is baseline appealing to humanoid primates.

Fiction delivery systems tend to remain true to the human voice. Someone tells a story, others listen. If it’s got certain elements it fascinates. Listeners are hooked and come back for more as the camp fire dies low and shadows move in the dark around us.

Writing dies along with writers, sometimes, but fiction is along for the ride with us. As long as we’re hear to receive it, to crave and need and rely upon it, then fiction will sustain us.

Our stories are our lives.

That is what will last, maybe even longer than we do.

/// /// ///

Michael Crichton

October 23, 1942 -- November 4, 2008

Although it trailed off at the end of his career, the best of his work remains readable, thought-provoking, and fun. His career paralleled that of his favorite writer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Saturday, November 1, 2008